A teaching moment on Bird ID.

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Back at work after two weeks off, and getting back into the swim of things. It was nice to completely unplug for a bit and recharge the batteries. I definitely needed it…

One thing I did was what I like to call a “long day” out birding and doing bird photography; up early (4:30AM) so I can get out so San Luis National Wildlife Refuge around sunrise, and I spend part of the day there, and the rest of the day at Merced NWR, one of my favorite places. I seem to do this once or twice a year during the winter birding season, and it’s not unusual for the day to end back home around 8 or 9PM. Definitely long.

This year, the alarm didn’t go off and I got a couple of hours extra sleep; I got hit by the IOS notification bug. On the other hand, I still got to San Luis NWR only 90 minutes behind schedule — to clear 35 degree weather, sleeping birds (do you blame them?) and generally slow birding. A number of the still ponds were skinned over in ice, and frankly, the only thing I like LESS than central valley tule fog at dawn is black ice, and given the slow start to the morning, I was a lot more productive sleeping and being a bit more rested. So no complaint.

While at Merced I ran into a hawk I wasn’t sure how to identify. In those cases I’ll grab photos, and rather than ID in the field, I’ll come home where I can spend more time thinking it through. That process, and then getting the ID corrected by the birding communities, turned out to be an interesting teaching exercise about how you can run through all the proper steps of ID — and still get it a bit sideways.

Me, get an ID wrong? never. never ever. I’m perfect.

No, really, I’m a lot more of an enthusiastic birder than a great one. And I’m cool with that. The amount of time and energy to do more than slowly get better is just time and energy I don’t have these days. But it sure is fun to try (birding is so damn analog. that’s what makes it a challenge — and fun). And if you aren’t pushing your limits and making mistakes, how are you growing yourself? So I don’t worry about getting it wrong. I worry instead about not putting the energy into doing the right things to try to get it right. If I do — and still miss — that’s how you learn.

When I saw the bird initially, my reaction was “coopers hawk. No, wait…” — it wasn’t a cooper’s, it wasn’t a sharpie, but I wasn’t sure what it was. In that case, if possible, I’ll grab photos and defer a final decision until I get home and can study it more carefully. (if I can’t get photos, I’ll stop in the field and try to decide on an ID via my e-guides and then see if I’m comfortable with it when I get home; it not, it stays in “wish it was a…” category).

So when I got home and fired up the photos, “like a cooper’s…” was still in my head, and that’s a key here. Firing up the iBird guide, my first reference for what it might be was to bring up their cooper’s entry and look at their similar birds listings. They list six: Northern harrier, Broad-winged hawk, Northern Goshawk, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Merlin, and American Kestrel.

I can throw out harrier, Merlin and Kestrel. I’ve already decided it’s not a Sharpie. colors are wrong for Goshawk (and I know that’d be a major rarity), so I pull up broad-winged. Looking at the images within iBird, and focusing mostly on the head of the bird (since that’s what keyed me onto “not a cooper’s” in the first place) I think it’s a maybe.

And that’s where I went sideways — looking at the images today and the whole bird (instead of focussing too closely on the aspect of the bird that was ‘different’ it’s clear at a glance the chest pattern and the wing primary feathering don’t match. But at the time, I didn’t do that). I still wasn’t sure about the tail, the bird in question had a grey on white banding.

There had been a previous report of this bird at Merced and I had in fact tagged that message since I was planning to head out there, but then I forgot all about  it until after I’d submitted my ebird report (so I don’t think it influenced my ID attempt). some of the email I got last night indicated the previous report didn’t get photos and there was some discussion about it being a red-shouldered. If nothing else, I’m glad I was able to (I presume) refind that bird and clear up this question…

So I went off to flickr, searched on broad-winged and checked out images. I ultimately came on some images that I felt confirmed what I was seeing, and that’s when I made the call.

Right now, a bunch of birders are looking at the image above and yelling “you idiot! that’s a….” to their computer screens. And they’re right.

So now today, where someone has said “hey! think red-shouldered!” I’m looking at the image and going “well, duh!” and I in fact saw another red-shouldered at Merced that day, an immature. Most of my ID experience with that species is immature, and for some reason, at the time the bird triggered a thought towards Cooper’s, not red-shouldered. But as soon as someone suggested it, suddenly the bird kicked into view, and it’s obvious what it is.

Whenever I get an ID wrong (not that I ever do, of course) and then get the correct ID, I like to go back to what I did to see how I came to the decision, where I went wrong (so I can be more accurate later) and whether the mistake was preventable (and how). I thought I’d go through it because I think there are some interesting details here, especially since I’m guessing whoever made the other report of this bird travelled down a similar path.

The tool I used didn’t nudge me back down the path towards red-shouldered. that’s not the tool’s fault, but my over-reliance on its advice. I should have taken one step further back and asked myself what hawks should I be considering here, not just what hawks iBird was suggesting. That’s my bad (but I can see why I did it. won’t do that again). And yeah, I can see how if you walk down the iBird path with the mindset of “which of the birds similar to Cooper’s is this?” How you end up at Broad-wing. All very logical. Just wrong.

But I don’t feel too bad being wrong here, all things considered. And there are some good lessons to learn to help me (and hopefully, others reading this) from this mistake later. And ultimately, it all got sorted out which is what’s really important, and I’m trying to make sure that final info gets out to everyone so we’re all back in sync. I’d hate for someone to go chasing this bird because the corrected info didn’t get passed on.

There are a couple of learning points here:

First, don’t be overly reliant on your tools. I let iBird steer me down a path that was a little too convenient. Tha’s not iBird’s fault. Should red-shouldered be one of their similar birds? Well, where do you draw these lines? Put too many birds on the list, the list stops being useful. Use the list blindly as a definitive resource? that’s the problem.

Second, when ebird flagged the rough-winged ID as not just rare, but really, really, almost-unprecented rare, that should have been the clue for me to take a step back and ask myself what birds I should have expected there that I didn’t consider. If I’d gone in and taken a look at all of the local common hawks — if I’d looked up red-shouldered in the guide, the chest feathering would have likely triggered me onto the species. Since I had in fact seen a different red-shouldered immature on site as well, I really should have stopped to think about what other hawks it could have been. But I didn’t.

Third, I got too focused on the parts of the bird (head and tail) that weren’t Cooper’s hawk, and stopped looking at the entire bird. This is not uncommon with ID attempts where a birder gets too attached to one field mark and ignores others that would define the ID properly. Which is what I did. The head was wrong for Cooper’s so find a head that matches. then look on flickr and find a matching tail. Done. Except one look back at the chest feathering, you see it’s wrong for Broad-Wing. Not even close. But I stopped looking at it. Bird ID is wonderfully difficult, and when I watch some of the senior birders make it look easy, I just sit back in fascination at how they do it. And just when you think you understand bird ID, toss in females (especially female ducks), shorebirds, juveniles, eclipse plumage, feather wear and fading…. For fun, go to the beach and start sorting out all of the 2nd cycle immature gulls… Me, I’ll go have another drink and pretend I tried.

Fourth, every birder — every damn one of us — wants to find that really exquisite rarity. The more novice a birder you are, the more likely you are to assume what you’re seeing is a rarity. One key aspect of maturing as a birder is getting your head away from that. But when something wanders in that triggers that “SCORE!” in the back of your head, it can be tough…

That is, by the way, an absolutely gorgeous red-shouldered hawk. Stunning bird.

but it’s not a broad-winged hawk. But it comes with a couple of other consolation prizes. One is that by finding it, making this mistake and reporting it and getting corrected, I saved some other birders the time they were planning to go try to find that OTHER report of a broad-winged hawk. We’re all pretty sure that other birder went down a similar logical path to this mistake — only I had pictures that the experts could look at.

And I was at Merced the day after the CBC, and found a couple of species that weren’t found during the CBC. Those become what’s known as count-week birds, which supplement the report and help us understand what’s going on with the birds in that region. One of the, a wintering Wilson’s Warbler, just made my day. There are always a few that winter here in Northern california, but finding one is a nice catch, and the birds are cute as a button. As soon as I catch up on my image processing, I’ll post some cute pictures of it…